Sunday, January 3, 2010

2009: My reading year in review

Okay, so one of the reasons for launching "Free Range Reading" was to have a platform to publish the fun little summary of my reading year that I've been posting to Facebook over the last couple of years. I put this together over the weekend and re-post it here to you, the wider (i.e. not limited to my 187 Facebook-friend) audience. Enjoy!
I want to begin my annual review by mentioning a little tidbit about the reading experience that I picked up during my travels this year. I can’t remember who said this – it was either famed literary editor Diana Athill in her excellent memoir Stet, or fellow memoirist Nuala O’Faolain in her recent interview with the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel – but it stuck with me. Readers of books can be grouped into two broad camps: those who treat literature as merely one form of escapism among many (i.e. they might read or they might go to the movies or they might watch something on TV); and those who treat literature as something a bit more serious, something that transcends mere entertainment to help us discover the diversity and richness of the human experience.

After reading (or hearing?) this, I began to see how most of the books I’ve come to cherish are written with the latter group in mind; and the books that routinely disappoint or annoy me seem written under the presumption that everyone fits into the former group, that the very notion of a “serious” reader is a tired anachronism.

Each of the books on my top 10 list this year were entertaining in one way or another but also achieved something deeper. I walked away from them feeling the way you should after a serious read – enriched. Some were more challenging than others, but all of them rewarded serious attention and made me want to recommend these books to other serious readers. Conversely, most of my top five disappointments were packaged and marketed (and, in some cases, even widely reviewed) as “serious literature”, and yet revealed an untenable streak of superficiality or were flawed in some fundamental way. Most took some sort of short cut or low road and hoped the reader wouldn’t be equipped to notice.

As always, you can check out my previous year-end reviews (available here and here, as well as my comprehensive reading log. And by all means please leave a comment below.

Top 10 books I read this year

  • Inside, by Kenneth Harvey. With cold-eyed prose reminiscent of Coetzee, Newfoundland author Kenneth Harvey unleashes his tale of a wrongfully convicted man released from prison and his attempts to reset his life. This novel deals with some pretty hefty themes – guilt and redemption, love and revenge – but what struck me was how well Harvey handles the quotidian detail of life on the wrong side of the tracks. He shows that violence can erupt from even the most mundane, everyday exchanges, and this lends a gripping tension to the book that never subsides. The ending will leave you feverish.

  • A Strange Relief, by Sonnet L’Abbe. I already knew of L’Abbe as a poetry critic and was pleased when I finally found a copy of this, her debut collection of poems, in a used bookstore. L’Abbe’s voice arrives on these pages already well seasoned, bursting with a talent and wisdom that is at once disarming and welcoming. Her masterpiece “The Potter’s Daughter” was the single best poem I read all year; and her piece “Cheju” brought back some wonderful emotions from my visit to that island off the southern coast of Korea in 2004. This is an astute and astounding collection of verse.

  • Babel Tower, by A.S. Byatt. I’m going out on a limb and declaring that Babel Tower was the best book I read this year, the most accomplished on this list. I cannot recommend this novel enough. Ironically, I struggled with it at first and nearly gave up after about 200 pages, but returned and finished the remaining 400 with relish. I’m so grateful that I toughed it out. Byatt gives a near miraculous dimension to her subject matters: the abused wife on the lam, the postmodern novel that stirs controversy and censorship, the backbiting of literary criticism. Not once does Byatt’s voice turn preachy; not once does this novel take a short cut or sink into cliché. The nested novel within a novel is structurally perfect, and every character (including a violent husband who stalks the protagonist) is drawn with rich coherence. Babel Tower is major landmark of English literature.

  • The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. Winner of the 2008 Booker Prize, this highly praised novel was one of the few I read this year that actually lived up to its hype. I like to refer to The White Tiger as the anti-Rohinton Mistry novel. Adiga’s take on modern-day India is cutting and acerbic, showing how the country’s caste system fits rather nicely into the more odious aspects of globalization. You’ll never look at outsourcing the same way again.

  • Money, by Martin Amis. Ahh, Mr. Amis, what plaudits can I heap on this novel that a gazillion critics haven’t since it was first published 25 years ago? The wit, the turns of phrase, the scathing critique of `80s greed. I will add this: you get the “voice” novel, Mr. Amis. I mean, you really really get it. And to you, the uninitiated reader, I say don’t fear John Self. Just kick back with your favourite bottle of duty free and let him carry you away. A golden handjob – erm, excuse me, handshake – awaits you when you finish.

  • My White Planet, by Mark Anthony Jarman. With so much riding against Jarman for getting the recognition he deserves here in Canada, it’s great to see him continue to produce the kind of short fiction that he does. This latest collection is a tour de force, full of hardscrabble men living on the edge and dealing with its incumbent tragedies and violence. Readers of Jarman’s previous stories will not be disappointed: the grit is here, and so too is his pyrotechnic use of language. The title story is the strongest in this very strong collection.

  • Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore. I learned of this short story collection after listening to Moore’s “Dance in America” as part of The New Yorker’s short story podcast series. The piece impressed me so much that I ran out and bought the entire collection. Turns out, it’s not even the strongest story in the book. (That honour belongs to “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk”, a story about parents dealing with a child with cancer.) Moore is a wonderful stylist and her stories are full of warmth and wit. Readers will find her work a wonderful complement to anything by Alice Munro.

  • Galore, by Michael Crummey. This is one of the few new hardcover Canadian novels I read this year, and I really felt it should have gotten more attention during awards season than it did. (It was shut out of both the Giller Prize and the Writers Trust Award.) Critics seemed to love it, citing the debt that the book owes to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Galore is a manic amalgam of magic realism and multigenerational historical writing, with charming, fully realized characters and impeccable research. For me, this book cements Crummey’s place as the top practitioner of the sweeping Newfoundland historical novel. Wayne Johnston will need to publish a masterpiece in his next outing to win that title back.

  • The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood. I was long overdue to read this early Atwood book and I was so pleased that I finally got around to it. The politics of this novel are about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but that in no way detracts from Atwood’s structural abilities and consummate skills as a storyteller. Every aspect in this tale of a young woman struggling against the patriarchal norms of consumerism fits together superbly. Marion’s inability to eat in the face of radical changes to her internal and external existence is the perfectly chosen metaphor. Even the absurdist ending, where Marion eats a cake decorated to look like herself, felt apt and seamless.

  • How Fiction Works, by James Wood. This will make for entertaining and illuminating reading for anyone attempting to write serious literary fiction. Wood, The New Yorker’s leading literary critic, translates his didactical approach to book reviewing into a full-length dissertation on how fiction works. His concepts of free indirect narration style and the “thisness” of well-chosen details are groundbreaking. Wood refers to countless works of classic literature to make points on everything from characterization to writing about big-T truths. It’s as if he holds the entire western canon in his palm at once and is able to leverage any and all of it at will. There are no other writing manuals out there quite like this one.

Top five disappointments this year

  • The Cult of Quick Repair, by Dede Crane. I picked up this short story collection after reading a couple of positive reviews, but was left sourly disappointed. Crane attempts to capture a lot of the same charm and insight of Lisa Moore’s better works, but her efforts come off as shallow and dull. This collection is a meringue of chick lit served up as if it were a full meal of literature.

  • The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill. One of the panelists on this year’s Canada Reads radio show referred to Aminata, the plucky protagonist of Hill’s novel, as the Forrest Gump of Canadian literature – never thinking or saying or doing anything that isn’t flawless. I couldn’t agree more. The Book of Negroes has a lot of interesting writing but is ultimately undermined by its too-perfect narrator and wholly implausible plots. The section set in Nova Scotia is especially preposterous and feels tacked on. This is the sort of book that is beloved by those who don’t read very much or very closely.

  • The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Stephen Galloway. One of the most over-hyped, over-praised Canadian novels of recent years. I can barely express how much I hated this book. Galloway’s prose style is like walking in platform shoes on an air mattress – all cautious fumbling and crazy imbalances. The clichés and dull sentences just pile up one right after the other. The novel’s structure is beyond predictable: I constantly found myself three steps ahead of the characters, the narration, and Galloway himself. He writes about snipers and sniping with all the sensitivity and insight of a pornographer. And worst of all, he makes no attempt to grapple with the politics that underscored the conflict in Sarajevo. He’s more interested in putting on a snuff film of bullets leaving guns and entering innocent humans. This book was a complete waste of my time.

  • Crackpot, by Adele Wiseman. I picked up this novel after The Globe and Mail’s Books section featured it in its “buried treasures” column. I had read Wiseman’s The Sacrifice years ago and loved it, but I couldn’t for the life of me finish Crackpot. The problem is that, despite its engaging lead character Hoda and her story about life as a small-community prostitute, the novel has a narration that just can’t find a place to sit. Everything that comes to pass is presented as hearsay, with no overarching frame that holds the whole story together. It’s as if the novel is written in a kind of hyper-past tense, and the reader is never quite sure where the “here and now” resides.

  • Scar Tissue, by Michael Ignatieff. There’s a lot to love in this 1993 novel by the current leader of Canada’s only moderate national political party, but its flaws definitely shout down its strengths. Scar Tissue is a failed novel because it can’t tame the sections that want to be a memoir and a philosophical treatise. Ignatieff writes with gorgeous sensitivity about the decline and death of the mother in his story, but the novel has too many ostensible preoccupations and doesn’t arise naturally out of itself. Iggy has gone on record as saying that his novel-writing was a mere hobby, and unfortunately Scar Tissue proves him right.

Here’s a comprehensive list of what I read this year.

68. December 31. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. 340 pps.
67. December 24. Pause for Breath, by Robyn Sarah. 81 pps.
66. December 23. All My Friends Are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman. 111 pps.
65. December 20. Meniscus, by Shane Neilson. 93 pps.
64. December 19. Track & Trace, by Zachariah Wells, decorated by Seth. 69 pps.
63. December 18. One Way, One Heart - Alden Nowlan: A Writer's Life. 367 pps.
62. December 8. The Diviners, by Rick Moody. 567 pps.
61. November 23. Atlantic Canada's 100 Greatest Books, by Trevor J. Adams and Stephen Patrick Clare. 229 pps.
60. November 20. How Fiction Works, by James Wood. 248 pps.
59. November 16. The Amazing Absorbing Boy, by Rabindranath Maharaj. 335 pps. [For review in Quill & Quire.]
58. November 9. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton. 363 pps.
57. November 3. The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. 189 pps.
56. October 28. What Boys Like, by Amy Jones. 223 pps. [For review in Halifax magazine.]
55. October 24. Glenn Gould, by Mark Kingwell. (Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series). 249 pps.
54. October 19. Slant Room, by Michael Eden Reynolds. 92 pps.
53. October 18. The Journey Prize 21: Stories, selected by Camilla Gibb, Lee Henderson and Rebecca Rosenblum. 265 pps.
52. October 13. The Laundromat Essay, by Kyle Buckley. 79 pps.
51. October 12. Quickening, by Terry Griggs. 156 pps.
50. October 6. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry. 416 pps.
49. September 26. Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 147 pps.
48. September 22. The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood. 319 pps.
47. September 14. Scar Tissue, by Michael Ignatieff. 199 pps.
46. September 9. Galore, by Michael Crummey. 336 pps.
45. September 1. Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore. 291 pps.
44. August 26. My White Planet, by Mark Anthony Jarman. 213 pps.
43. August 23. Salt Physic, by Jacqueline Larson. 77 pps.
42. August 22. The Waterfall, by Margaret Drabble. 238 pps.
41. August 18. Inside Mr. Enderby, by Anthony Burgess. 220 pps.
40. August 14. Dusklands, by J.M. Coetzee. 125 pps.
39. August 10. Money, by Martin Amis. 394
38. August 2. Crackpot, by Adele Wiseman (unfinished). 101 pps.
37. July 27. How Insensitive, by Russell Smith. 258 pps.
36. July 23. The Glass Knight, by David Helwig. 190 pps.
35. July 19. Runaway, by Alice Munro. 335 pps.
34. July 10. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. 276 pps.
33. July 4. The Withdrawal Method, by Pasha Malla. 321 pps.
32. June 27. Crabwise to the Hounds, by Jeramy Dodds. 71 pps.
31. June 26. Word Burials, by J.J. Steinfeld. 250 pps.
30. June 21. The Fallen, by Stephen Finucan. 204 pps. [For review in Quill & Quire.]
29. June 18. The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway. 261 pps.
28. June 14. The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander. 339 pps.
27. June 9. Shut Up He Explained, by John Metcalf. 398 pps.
26. May 31. The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad (partial - left it behind at a bar. D'oh!) - about 150 pages.
24 (b). May 28. Babel Tower, by A.S. Byatt. (the rest) 407 pps.
25. May 18. The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. 278 pps.
24 (a). May 12. Babel Tower, by A.S. Byatt. (partial) 211 pps.
23. May 4. S., a novel in [xxx] dreams, by Lee D. Thompson. 79 pps.
22. May 3. How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen. 306 pps.
21. April 26. Collected Short Stories: Volume 1, by W. Somerset Maugham. 441 pps.
20. April 19. The Razor's Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham. 314 pps.
19. April 9. Short Haul Engine, by Karen Solie. 82 pps.
18. April 8. Once, by Rebecca Rosenblum. 203 pps.
17. April 3. Stet: An Editor's Life, by Diana Athill. 250 pps.
16. March 29. A Strange Relief, by Sonnet L'Abbe. 88 pps.
15. March 28. Martin Sloane, by Michael Redhill. 282 pps.
14. March 22. Lives of the Saints, by Nino Ricci. 238 pps.
13. March 16. is/was, by Jenny Sampirisi. 182 pps.
12. March 14. Couples, by John Updike. 480 pps.
11. March 4. The Art of the Novel, by Milan Kundera. 165 pps.
10. March 1. Alligator, by Lisa Moore. 309 pps.
9. February 23. The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. 391 pps.
8. February 17. Fierce, by Hannah Holborn. 230 pps. [ Reviewed in The Danforth Review.]
7. February 12. The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill. 486 pps.
6. February 2. The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, by Wallace Stevens, edited by Holly Stevens. 415 pps.
5. January 25. The Cult of Quick Repair, by Dede Crane. 208 pps.
4. January 22. Strike/Slip, by Don McKay. 78 pps.
3. January 21. Flaubert: A Life, by Geoffrey Wall. 413 pps.
2. January 11. Inside, by Kenneth J. Harvey. 282 pps.
1. January 7. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. 341 pps.


  1. Very cool selections

    just discovered your list while i was searching for reviews of Stephen Finucan's short story collections.....

    btw i am done with facebook so are your previous years best of lists posted elsewhere??


  2. Hi AK,

    I'm glad you liked the selections.

    If you're looking for reviews of Finucan's earlier stuff, may I recommend scanning old issues of the (sadly, now defunct) online literary journal The Danforth Review, which I know reviewed his earlier book or books. You can find the journal's entire content (1999 - 2009) archived at Library and Archive Canada here:

    Unfortunately, its search functionality has been turned off and all the pages have been "robots off", which explains why none of its content (including reviews of Finucan's earlier books) show up in Google. But if you know the years in which those books were published, it will help to narrow your search, and then you can go trolling to see if you can find them.

    As for my previous best-of lists, as far as I know you can access Facebook notes without actually being a member of Facebook. So here are links to 2008 and 2007's lists:

    Let me know if you can access them, and what you think!